20 January 2019
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Labour needs to ditch some sacred cows

"Every consensus is based on acts of exclusion."
~ Chantal Mouffe.

Labour’s main problem came into focus for me yesterday when I was watching the BBC News Channel. Rupa Huq, the new Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton (congratulations to her for winning) came on and started boasting about Labour’s success in London, linking it to London as a place where UKIP doesn’t do well and drawing a contrast between the diverse, relatively well-educated capital and the rest of the country.

This sort of ‘London exceptionalism’ makes some people feel very good about themselves but it doesn’t seem calculated to appeal to many outside the capital nor indeed many former Labour voters. It’s common currency among London Labourites though, and it’s telling that the contrast is most enthusiastically illustrated by contrasting Labour to UKIP. On this dimension the ‘us’ stands in contrast to a ‘them’ composed of UKIP and UKIP voters.

The contrast draws its fuel from a consensus view that UKIP is ‘a racist party’ but also from London’s great diversity compared to the rest of the country – with just 45% of its population being ‘White British’ according to 2011 census results. We think that London not voting UKIP and London being very diverse are two sides of the same coin. The ‘us’ of Labour is equated with diverse London while the ‘them’ of UKIP is equated with the not-so-diverse rest of the country.

You might see what is happening here: that for a strong tendency within Labour (in London in particular) ethnic minority voters count as ‘us’ while white people are regarded with suspicion as a latent, potential UKIP-supporting ‘them’. We draw ourselves around our core, and this creates our opposition. Labour’s tendency to associate itself with ethnic minorities and others as separate groupings which it specifically claims to represent (for example through ethnic minority, women’s and ‘LGBT’ Manifestos – while the Conservatives produced an ‘English Manifesto’) sends messages not just to those groups but to those who don’t qualify. Those messages say "we represent these people" but not you.

Watching election night unfold I thought I could see this phenomenon working itself out in London itself, where Labour won seven out of 12 target seats. The Tottenham MP and potential London Mayoral (even perhaps Labour leadership) candidate David Lammy picked it out during the BBC coverage: that the seats Labour were picking up were in areas of high ethnic minority concentration. In areas with less minority ethnic presence like Battersea and Hendon, the Conservatives did much better. Of course it will require serious number crunchers to tell a fuller story controlling for class and affluence and different ethnicities, but there seemed to be a pretty obvious trend there for me.

All politics is the politics of division in some sense but we might look north of the border to see that you can practice this more successfully than Labour does at the moment. The Scottish National Party identifies itself with Scotland – so every voter in the country counts as a potential core voter. The English (or people resident in England) are the outsiders for them, but they don’t have votes in Scotland. A lot of people don’t like this nationalism, but I think the SNP itself manages it quite well for the most part. All parties have their unpleasant wings and extreme outriders, though thinking about it I wonder if the Conservatives’ success might be partly down to them having relatively few of these (despite all the talk from lefties about how nasty and evil they are).

On the left, we do an excellent job of pushing people away, despite all our talk of ‘inclusion’ and Labour’s claims to be the party of ‘the many not the few’. My feeling is that this is affects all left-leaning parties. That seems to be backed up by the numbers, which show how what you might call a ‘progressive alliance’ composed of Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, SDLP, Greens and Plaid Cymru won 47.7% of the total vote in this election while the Conservatives, UKIP and DUP from the right picked up 50.1%. (Thanks to John Clarke for pointing that out).

Compare that to 2010 (a bad year for Labour remember), when the more ‘progressive’ or left-leaning parties won a total of 55.7% against the right’s 41.7% and you can see that over the past five years the British left has been losing votes to the right, despite having a Conservative-led government implementing public spending cuts (known in left-wing circles as ‘austerity’). As a whole, the voters have looked at us and said, “You know what, the other lot aren’t great but I prefer them over you lot. See you later.”

This is where we need to start, by admitting that with the bulk of the British pubic, we are unpopular – the only serious exception being the SNP in Scotland which has got its identity politics worked out. There are lessons to be learned here. The now-departed Labour MP and former Ed Miliband adviser John Denham says:

“In seats we lost, like Southampton Itchen, our inability to win over those anti-Tory former Labour and would-be Labour voters who went for UKIP proved fatal. Despite the best efforts of our local candidate and campaign, Labour’s cloth ear to the politics of identity meant we could not bring them over. It wasn’t really about policies on immigration or Europe, but about a lack of confidence that we understood why rapid changes in work and communities seemed overwhelming. The rise of UKIP support amongst the voters we most needed to attract not only hit us hard but reminds us that there is no iron law that says we will do better next time.”

We can perhaps see from this how crowing about how ‘our’ areas and ‘our’ people resisting the appeal of UKIP is actually rather stupid, naive and self-defeating. It is also rather lacking in accuracy. As David Goodhart has written of the 2014 European elections, “UKIP, which won 17 per cent of the vote in London, outpolled Labour by almost two to one among white voters in the capital.” In Labour we blame UKIP for polarising and dividing communities, but by placing ourselves directly in opposition to them and by practising ethnic and other types of favouritism we end up doing that ourselves.

In one of the more enlightening accounts of Labour’s failure this time, the Fabian Society’s Andrew Harrop partly addresses these problems, with a clear awareness of how Labour has been losing the old white working class vote. He writes:

“The real problem was that, for many, questions of identity and culture took precedence and on these issues people felt deeply alienated from Labour. These themes are sources of division not unity among Labour’s potential voters, so it will be a huge task for the party to forge a sense of common purpose amongst non-Conservative Britain. And the job will become even harder in a parliament that is set to be dominated by immigration, Britain’s place in Europe and Scotland’s place in Britain.”

We can see here a tacit recognition how current politics is dividing potential Labour voters along identity lines which are mapping on to Labour/non-Labour distinctions. Many Labour and other left-wing folks blame UKIP for whipping up division, but with UKIP winning just one-in-eight votes nationwide and only one House of Commons seat out of 650, the blame must surely lie with us.

Harrop’s account is a good one, but his recommendations themselves partly reflect Labour’s troubles. He says: “[Labour’s] leaders need to resemble the diversity of its supporters and the party needs to rebuild the two-way emotional connections that have been severed. Locally, that means recruiting supporters and activists from within each community and organising to achieve change that people care about.”

Part of the problem with this is that some ‘communities’ are strong and have well-established representation within the institutional architecture of Labour and the wider left, while others – notably that troubled old (mostly white) working class – are shut out and have declined as communities. They don’t have much if any representation, and if they tried we would probably shout them down as ignorant and racist, particularly if they dared to step on the sacred cow of mass immigration.

So if we work to recruit supporters and activists from our existing voting base, we will probably continue to entrench ourselves in our existing redoubts, becoming more the party of liberal professionals, public sector workers and ethnic minorities and less like the people who have left us but who would appreciate some left-wing representation.

Harrop suggests: “To bring together supporters from such a diverse range of backgrounds the next leader will need to live and breathe ‘one nation‘, big-tent politics.”

This comes to the crux of Labour’s problem here. For, while being completely committed to divisive identity politics (which is institutionalised into its being), attempts by Labour to play ‘One Nation’ politics (which Ed Miliband tried for a while) do not convince.

So what do I recommend?

Well, pretty the same as I have being saying here, seemingly pretty much alone on the left, for the last few years. We need to get rid of some sacred cows – open up the party, stop offering favouritism to certain groups and start to embrace equality rather than its opposite. How we draw the lines of ‘us’ and ‘them’ constitutes who we are: building a new, wider coalition sounds nice and easy in theory, but in practice it will require huge changes to the way Labour operates and to the way it thinks.

I seriously doubt if the party is even ready to start questioning these things, let alone embarking on such changes, but this is the challenge in my view. Thankfully there are signs that many Labour folks are at least reaching the threshold of the question; we shall see what happens. But I fear we will end up with the same old stale fight between the Labour left and the New Labour tendency: another example of an 'us' and 'them' division which doesn't do anyone much good.

For a few more suggestions on how Labour might change, see my short submission to the Collins Review on Labour Party reform.

For more on similar themes, see The Labour Party and other party politics page and Identity politics and the left page.


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